Miep Gies was the last link to Anne Frank, and her loss is tough for many women
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
The girls who loved Anne Frank loved her in a deep and abiding way, in a way that bordered on obsession and felt both bleak and wise. She was their first introduction to the terribleness of the world, and the beauty, and to sad endings that are also hopeful and true.
Miep Gies died on Monday, and another chapter in Anne Frank's legacy has ended.
"I read ["The Diary of Anne Frank"] in fourth grade," remembers Krista Francis, a human resources director in Kensington. "It was the first grown-up book that I read," back in the 1970s. "She was feisty, and I was feisty, and she loved to write, and I loved to write." Thirty years later, Francis remembers the experience. Most of Anne's fans remember their first experience and the ways it changed them.
"It was my parents' book -- black, hardback, without a picture," remembers author Sandi Wisenberg, who first read the book in 1964 and whose deep fixation with Anne Frank would ultimately lead her to write her own memoir, called "Holocaust Girls." Prompted by Anne's hiding, "I had an escape bag -- a little plastic overnight bag -- and I kept it near my bed." One night the air conditioning went out in her family's Houston home, and she lay in her dark, hot bedroom, listening in terror to every noise that came through the open windows. "I thought," she says, "that it was the Nazis."
The girls who loved Anne Frank wanted to understand what she went through, in whatever small ways they could. They were prone to melancholy and morbidity; they couldn't believe the atrocities that had happened in their parents' or grandparents' lifetimes.
My own fixation came early and stayed late. In high school I begged my father to take me to Germany, to a conference he was attending where the keynote speaker was Gies, one of the women who protected the Frank family during their two years of hiding in the annex of an Amsterdam spice factory. I don't remember much of what she said. I just remember thinking that she knew Anne Frank, and that we were in the same room.
The Austrian-born Gies never became what you might consider a household name, but a historical footnote for what she did more than six decades ago -- bringing the eight residents of the annex supplies during their hiding, and rescuing Anne's diary when the Franks were discovered and sent to concentration camps in 1944. She was the last living protector; other annex helpers died long ago. Her passing represented the loss of the only connection that Anne had to the present world, and that her fans, in turn, had to her. As years passed, and the Holocaust became something that happened a generation ago, then two, then three, Gies alone was our tie.
"Anne Frank and Miep Gies have in them the entire range of human behavior," says Francine Prose, author of the recent "Anne Frank: the Book, the Life, the Afterlife." "You have the unbelievable evil that was going on just outside of the attic, and then you have Anne and Miep exemplifying the greatest decency and courage and humanity that could possibly exist."
In researching her book, Prose was repeatedly surprised by the depth of feeling that people felt for Anne, for how personal they viewed the relationship to be.
"I was in sixth grade, and my language arts teacher did a quarter-long project on the Holocaust," remembers Melanie Karlins, a 20-something who works for George Mason University. "I stole the book. I didn't give it back to the library. I read it over and over again, every six months, all the way through high school."
In the beginning she read it for the story of Anne, for her schoolgirl concerns about boys and parents and homework. As Karlins got older, she realized that she no longer identified with the Frank sisters, but with their protectors, who were confronted daily with choices of self-preservation vs. altruism and fear vs. bravery. Gies "was the last remaining person who was part of the story, and she was such a big part of the story," Karlins says.
"People who read the diary understand that she was an average, normal person with limited means," says Sara Bloomfeld, the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. "And in an extraordinary moment she did what she felt was the right thing."
As the girls who loved Anne Frank grew up, they became women who loved Miep Gies, and who hoped that they would do what she did, if ever they were asked to.